I’m nine years old, in bed, in the dark. The detail in the room is perfectly clear. I am lying on my back. I have a greeny-gold quilted eiderdown covering me. I have just calculated that I will be 50 years old in 1997. ‘Fifty’ and ‘1997’ don’t mean a thing to me, aside from being an answer to an arithmetic question I set myself. I try it differently. ‘I will be 50 in 1997.’ 1997 doesn’t matter. ‘I will be 50.’ The statement is absurd. I am nine. ‘I will be ten’ makes sense. ‘I will be 13’ has a dreamlike maturity about it. ‘I will be 50’ is simply a paraphrase for another senseless statement I make to myself at night: ‘I will be dead one day.’ ‘One day I won’t be.’ I have a great determination to feel the sentence as a reality. But it always escapes me. ‘I will be dead’ comes with a picture of a dead body on a bed. But it’s mine, a nine-year-old body. When I make it old, it becomes someone else. I can’t imagine myself dead. I can’t imagine myself dying. Either the effort or the failure to do so makes me feel panicky.

Being 50 is not being dead, but it is being old, inconceivably old, for me, that is. I know other people are old, other people are 50, and I will be 50 if I don’t die beforehand. But the best I can do is to imagine someone who is not me, though not someone I know, being 50. She looks like an old lady; the way old ladies currently look. She looks like someone else. I can’t connect me thinking about her with the fact that I will be her in 41 years’ time. She has lived through and known 41 years to which I have no access. I can’t believe I will become her, though I know, factually, that I must. I can’t dress myself in her clothes and her flesh and know what it feels like being her. This is immensely frustrating. I do the next best thing. I send a message out into the future, etch into my brain cells a memo to the other person, who will be me grown to be 50, to remember this moment, this very moment, this actual second when I am nine, in bed, in the dark, trying to imagine being 50.

I was 50 in the summer of 1997 and for the past year I have been recalling the nine-year-old who tried to imagine me. I mean, I have been recalling her trying to imagine me, at that moment, in bed, in the dark, some 41 years ago. I have finally received the memo. It is easier for me to acknowledge her than the other way round, for all that I have learned about the unreliability of memory, because I have lived the missing 41 years she could know nothing about. There is a track back. The vividness of her making a note to remember the moment when she is 50 is startling. But it’s not a simple, direct link. I have the moment, but the person I connect with is someone whose future I know. I do not know the nine-year-old as she was then, at all; the one who had not yet experienced the life I led between her and me. I can’t imagine her as a reality, in her striving to understand what kind of 50-year-old woman she would be, because she doesn’t exist anymore except as a pinpoint in time. She now has an indelible relation to me back through time, that I could not have for her aiming forward. There is a sense of vertigo, something quite dizzying about having arrived at the unimaginable point she reached out towards, at recalling her message and being in a position – but not able – to answer it: here I am, it’s like this.

It is not just the nine-year-old’s illusive reality that prevents me from responding, it is also my own present inability, aged 50, to imagine what it is like to be 50. I’ve heard a lot about it, read plenty, seen numbers of 50-year-olds, both depicted and in real life, but that seems to be no help at all. This isn’t surprising. The 50 that I seek to understand is the same 50 I wondered about as a child, it has nothing much to do with having lived for 50 years or more. It is, as Richard Shweder and the other anthropologists insist in the coyly named collection of ethnographical essays Welcome to Middle Age!, a ‘cultural fiction’.* Faced with the label, I find it hard not to wonder what use such a designation could be. Presumably everything cultural is a fiction by definition, and come to that everything natural is fiction too since it is named as such and viewed always by acculturated eyes. ‘Fictional’, Shweder explains, does not mean ‘unreal’; he uses the term, he says, in an (oh dear) ‘affirmative Post-Modern sense’. Things that are fictions are ‘fabricated, manufactured, invented or designed, but they are not necessarily false’.

It’s funny how, when social theory is teased out for the unspecialised reader, it splats to earth like a water bomb. The term ‘cultural fiction’ is manufactured, but it’s not necessarily false, it just returns us to the knowledge we started with. The designation of middle age as a cultural fiction is necessary, however, to make this book of essays more than a Disney travelogue of just so stories. ‘Middle age’ we learn is simply the story we tell ourselves in this part of the world at this time about a stage in life that has an alternative narrative in other places. That is the premise. ‘There are alternative ways of representing the temporal dimension of life without relying on the idea of middle age. For example, in some cultural worlds described in this book, the stages of life (including mature adulthood) are represented in terms of a social history of role transitions within the context of a residential kinship group.’ The last phrase, far from radically resetting notions of middle age, seems to describe our current Western point of view quite as well as it describes any alternative cultural formulation of the middle years of life. But there is a real sense of crusade from Shweder and other contributors to enlighten us, and show how we could have other, better ways of designating mature adulthood. Those better views (‘better fictions’, if we are using Shweder’s terminology) are, of course, to be found in far-away places with strange-sounding names.

A definition of the current Western discourse on middle age is offered by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, who opens the debate with an evangelically strong social-constructionist approach in which she calls for ‘critical age studies’, which start with the assumption that ‘little in midlife ageing is bodily and that nothing considered “bodily” is unaffected by culture.’ It’s radical stuff, demanding a new negative category ‘middle-ageism’, born of power, hierarchy and resistance; familiar to readers of Foucault everywhere. Middle age in our culture is a decline narrative that begins at adolescence and peaks in the forties and fifties as mid-life crisis. Since it is taken to be a cultural category, there appears to be no way out of this discourse; the ‘ideology of “decline” raining over us’ includes those who claim to experience no such thing: ‘there may be some people for whom life-course optimism or pessimism is a solid and relatively unshakeable given, so that they infallibly pick out only those elements of the available discourses that support their chosen worldview.’ The counter-discourse is dependent on the prevailing discourse. There’s no wriggling out of it, Gullette informs us. Those who refuse the narratives of ‘crisis-and-fall or crisis-and-cure’ are ‘also, but unwittingly, taking a stance toward midlife decline ideology: they are supporting it.’

For most of my life, I’ve felt quite cheery about ageing. It always seemed to me to be better to be older, and on the whole my experience has borne this suspicion out. I have, with each decade, better liked the way my life was; there has been increasing real autonomy, less anxiety, more confidence, greater physical pleasure, fewer physical pressures. This, of course, is all predicated on good luck and relative affluence. I don’t feel clever about it, only remarkably fortunate. Even so, I have to report, among other signs, a certain loss of muscle tone, an alarming decline in the ability to recall names and the reason I have just walked into the living-room, and the arithmetical certainty that I am nearer to inescapable death than I have ever been before. As a woman on a plane bound for sun and sea said to her friend to explain her anxiety about wearing bikinis, ‘My gravity’s going.’ Of course, we might rejoice in the new sensuality of soft, pliable flesh, and be grateful for the opportunity to let go of names that no longer concern us. We could look on short-term absent-mindedness as a new-found advantage: the excitement and infinite possibilities of arriving in a room without a clue why you are there are surely more interesting than just going to the cupboard to get a new roll of lavatory paper. Certainly, there are culturally imposed feelings about the bodily changes of ageing, and let’s suppose it’s possible consciously to alter our attitudes to them. But, for those lacking a conventional religious faith, how are we to celebrate the increasing proximity of death, which includes the loss of all these new advantages we’ve discovered? When we feel concern about ageing, we are not just kow-towing to received opinion, we are also gripped by panic at the remorselessness of time. Things are not going to get better, there is a definite direction to the physical changes those in middle age experience, from softening flesh and forgetfulness to arthritic immobility and oblivion. We might be lucky and stay relatively fit and mentally alert until the end, but the end is getting closer faster, and the end is foreordained. What exactly is there to look forward to? How do these other cultures avoid the glummest of conclusions?

The answer in almost all the essays is that they replace a decline narrative with one about life stages. In this view, middle age is a time of authority, less work and higher social standing. What is common to the alternative view is a strong sense of hierarchy. In Samoa, Kenya and rural India, middle life is a time when maximum political power, social status and family responsibility (though I’m not sure this follows) are achieved. Those at this stage are functioning at the centre of life and therefore are not much given to introspection. In Samoa, the physical movement and hard graft of the young are replaced with passive authority. Birthdays are insignificant, what matters is where you have got to in the life plan. ‘In age my parents are only 55 and 45, but I call them “old” because I am in a stage of being responsible for taking care of them,’ one informant explains. In Hindu families in rural India, people live in three or four-generation families. Parents cease sexual activity when their firstborn son brings home a wife. The youngest daughter-in-law is entirely subservient to the mother-in-law, who rules and runs the house. A 23-year-old daughter-in-law cooks and cleans for a household of 12 and, after washing the feet of her parents-in-law, drinks the water.

We are warned by the authors of this essay, Usha Menon and Richard Shweder, not to make cultural assumptions about this, nor to take a dim Western feminist view of the life of young women. What we see as an appalling daily grind has moral meanings of service to the family. They report relative contentment in their informants: well-being scores an average of 8 on a scale from 0 to 16. Mothers-in-law, of course, report high levels of well-being. But time passes not just for the daughters-in-law who will progress to higher and lighter duties. Mothers-in-law become grandmothers who are marginalised, lonely and feeble. A sense of community may have avoided mid-life crisis, and a belief in the hereafter apparently prevented a premature despair at a blank end, but it seems to be replaced by a miserable youth and old age. We are told it is inappropriate to judge these lifestyles negatively, but at the very least my culturally conditioned eyes look without envy on the culturally conditioned contentment described in these pages. These other ways reject the individualism, the narcissism of Western attitudes to the life course. Instead, they embed it in social relations hedged with rigid rules about appropriate ageing and duty. This may be a more comfortable way to live, it may even be more virtuous, but we’ve lost it, for better or worse, and the tales of middle age in other places are not alternative ways of being that we can slip on like a kimono; they are no more than interesting ethnographical data.

So we’re stuck with where we are. A notional 50 that is related to but not coterminous with our experience of ourselves. A cultural fiction, but in our present culture, lacking firm rules. In all probability everyone is startled by the fact of their having aged and has to align inner confusion with social perceptions, but in our society the signs are unclear. Beyond the notion of ‘50’ that I had as a child, that I have now, there are no guidelines.How is one supposed to be 50? There used to be a dress code, as clear as Greeks swathed in black, or white-haired old ladies in shawls who were ‘mothers’ in old movies. The nearest thing we have now is people who have stuck to whatever style was fashionable when they were young: the middle-aged in mini-skirts, too black eye make-up and the wrong kind of jeans. ‘Turn your collar down,’ I’m warned by my young. ‘You look Sixties.’ There are specialist shops. Invisible for most of my life, there is a shop in Kentish Town which, even now, I think of as always closed. When should I begin getting my clothes from here? Inspired by the fieldwork of Welcome to Middle Age!, I took a trip to Burston’s Jackets and Gowns. It has a permanent window display of shapeless pleated skirts, floral frocks, cardigans and fully fashioned jackets in 100 per cent polyester and crimplene and nylon. I toured the double-fronted windows. Middle age isn’t expensive. Even the ‘Model Coat’ was just £52, while ‘Latest’ dresses could be had for as little as £12. I hovered at the door. Inside, clothes were neatly racked and under polythene wraps. Two women I could easily identify as middle-aged were sitting chatting to some children who called one of them Granny. It was my intention to go in and try on some of these clothes, to see if I would be transformed into somebody appropriately ‘50’, but I couldn’t get through the door. What if it worked, what if ‘50’ and me converged as I put on the clothes? And what if it didn’t work? By which I mean, what if wearing the clothes made no difference to the image I thought I was seeing in the mirror, because the image I have of myself is entirely subjective? I remember sitting opposite a man at dinner, who was wearing a wig so obvious that it was hard to drag your eyes away from it. What, I wondered, did he see when he looked into his mirror before he left the house? Not what I and the others around the table were seeing, surely? Which thought led inexorably to the question of what I saw when I looked in the mirror before leaving the house, and what the other people around the table, included the wigged gent, were seeing when they looked at me.

Ditto the music I listen to. The books I read. The opinions I hold. My sex life. The variables are too great, the truths are too relative for a simple, satisfactory definition of middle age. Here I am, I might say to the nine-year-old, I have turned 50 and it is like ... well, it’s rather like not knowing what 50 is like when you are nine, but with the added certainty now that time is passing and will pass with increasing speed. And time, as I suspected all those years ago, is strictly limited. Time, of course, is another cultural fiction, but from one end of the planet to the other, for each individual, it comes to an end. And no, I am no better at imagining my own death than I was at nine. A memo then, for myself at the moment of death.

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